This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Agony Booth review: The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

This article looks at probably the most embarrassing chapter in the Star Wars canon (yes, even more embarrassing than the prequel trilogy).

For the holiday season, I decided to take a look at something that’s truly scary. No, I’m not talking about Black Christmas, Silent Night Deadly Night, or even Gremlins. I’m talking about a TV special that only aired once, November 17, 1978 on CBS, and that may be the reason why it was, for a time, considered an urban legend of sorts, until the emergence of the internet allowed anyone and everyone to go online and take a look, even if out of morbid curiosity, to see if there actually was a Christmas-themed Star Wars TV special. Yes, there was, and as anyone who’s ever dared to watch it will tell you, if this didn’t damage the Star Wars legacy as much as the prequels did, it comes pretty damn close.

The special begins with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) onboard the Millennium Falcon being chased by two Star Destroyers, as Han tries to bring Chewie back to his home planet for “Life Day”, which I guess is some sort of Christmas-like holiday. We see stock footage of the ships exchanging fire, and the Falcon going to light speed before the title credits come up. Afterward, we see what looks like a luxurious treehouse on the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk.

Chewie’s wife Malla, their son Lumpy, and Chewie’s dad Itchy (none of whom have been referenced in Star Wars lore since, thank God) are the residents of this house, and they’re awaiting Chewie’s arrival. We now get our first dose of pain from this special as the three Wookiees talk for several moments in their unintelligible language that only Han can understand. At least Jabba the Hutt and Greedo had subtitles, and we only got small doses of the Jawas, Sand People, and Ewoks bantering with each other. Lumpy quickly annoys his mom, Grandpa, and us before he finally quiets down after watching some sort of holographic show on a table similar to the one Chewie, C-3PO, and R2-D2 played chess on in the original film.

The Wookiee clan contact Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and R2, who are somewhere working on their X-Wing. This scene proves that even Luke can’t understand a damn word they’re saying as it takes Malla showing him a picture of Chewie for Luke to realize that they’re wondering where he is. Luke tells them he doesn’t know, but he’s sure Chewie will arrive soon.

Once Luke signs off, Malla contacts a trader named Saun Dann (Art Carney), whose shop is currently being inspected by Imperial troops (why? We never find out). Dann picks up Malla’s message and clandestinely tells her that both Chewie and Han are on their way. This leads to our next shot, which is deleted footage from the original film of Vader telling an officer to search everywhere on the Wookiee planet for rebels. How do we know this is deleted footage? Because the interior of the Star Destroyer that Vader is supposed to be on is as roomy as the Death Star (those lighted panels on the walls give it away, too).

More pain follows when we see Malla in her kitchen attempting to cook a “bantha rump” by watching a cook on TV. Unfunny antics ensue as Malla is unable to duplicate the cook’s technique as she has just two arms compared to the cook’s four. This cook is supposedly a woman but is played by Harvey Korman, who comes pretty close to making us forget that he was capable of making us laugh.

More stock footage appears as the Falcon is seen dealing with TIE fighters before Dann arrives at the Wookiee home. He brings gifts for the Wookiee clan, the most bizarre of which is some sort of virtual reality program he gives to Itchy. Considering that this was supposed to be a variety special the whole family could enjoy, it’s hard not to note the non-family friendly manner in which Dann describes this program to Itchy. The trader installs the data stick for the program, and Itchy begins enjoying it by sitting on his recliner and putting on special glasses. The program itself consists of singer/actress Diahann Carroll saying things such as, “I am for you!” I’m just wondering if Itchy really should be enjoying himself like this in the damn living room of his home.

Malla next contacts Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and informs them that Chewie hasn’t arrived yet. Like Luke and R2, we don’t have any idea where 3PO and Leia are calling from, but Dann assures the princess that everything’s in good hands (too bad the audience disagrees with him).

Han and Chewie finally arrive at the planet, but decide to land further from the Wookiee house than they’d like because of Imperial patrols in the area. Still more stock footage ensues as the Falcon enters the planet’s atmosphere.

Lumpy hears what sounds like the Falcon roaring by. Everyone is getting excited, especially when someone knocks at the door. Malla opens it only to find Stormtroopers and other Imperial officers on the other side. Tragically, they don’t instantly shoot the Wookiees down.

As the Imperials comb through the house, Dann attempts to keep them occupied by stammering when asked for his ID, and also insisting that Malla cook food for them. He even does Ed Norton’s “warming up the old soup bone” routine before distracting an officer by playing a Jefferson Starship video for him. Carney himself was truly one of the greats, and believe it or not, this moment is proof of that, as we can’t tell if Dann is really this dim-witted or if he’s putting on an act.

As the Stormtroopers search Lumpy’s room, he keeps himself occupied by watching a cartoon on a small TV. This cartoon has Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie, and the droids encountering Boba Fett. Lumpy then gasps when he sees that Boba Fett is in league with Vader. This prompts the Imperial officer in charge of rummaging through his home to wonder what the brat is aghast about. This is supposed to be a suspenseful moment, as Lumpy quickly changes the channel. Why the urgency? I guess the officer would be pissed if he saw Lumpy’s old man as a cartoon, and would be wondering why he wasn’t given a chance to be animated himself.

After the cartoon, Lumpy attempts to generate a false voice to make the Imperials return to their base. This requires the brat to watch a video on how to put together a voice-faking device, hosted by a stupid robot (Korman again).

The TV downstairs suddenly receives a news bulletin that Tatooine is under curfew by the Empire. For some reason, we next see footage of the famous Mos Eisley bar, now run by a woman named Ackmena (Bea Arthur, in her pre-Golden Girls days). She’s dealing with the many alien patrons the bar is known for, one of whom (played by, yep, Korman) attempts to flirt with her, even as he pours a drink in his head like he’s a plant (yes, I just typed that). The curfew announcement inspires Ackmena to lead everyone at the bar in song. Bea Arthur was renowned for her singing abilities, so I guess they had to crowbar them in there somehow.

At the same time, Lumpy is getting his machine together, and soon orders the Imperials out of there. One Stormtrooper stays behind and soon discovers that the brat tricked them into leaving. He chases the little Wookiee out of the house, even though he has a blaster.

Fortunately for Lumpy, and unfortunately for us, Han and Chewie are outside by this point, and Han tosses the Stormtrooper down the tree, which is pretty damn high.

With that, the Wookiee family is reunited, and they soon put on red robes and hold candles to celebrate Life Day. We then see many Wookiees appearing to walk into the sun while holding their candles.

But this apparently doesn’t fry them, because the next scene is all of these Wookiees in some sort of hall. Han, Leia, Luke, and the droids appear and wish Chewie and the rest a happy Life Day. Fisher then breaks into song, which proves she didn’t inherit her mom Debbie Reynolds’s singing talent.

We see a close-up of Chewie as clips from the original film are seen, reminding us of something better we could be watching. The special finally ends with Chewie and his Wookiee family holding hands at the dinner table.

So, is this special as bad as its reputation suggests? I can answer that in two words: HELL, YES.

I think it’s safe to say that both Star Wars prequel lovers and haters agree that this special is something best forgotten. Yes, it gives us a Star Wars cartoon (the first of many, as it turned out), but the special is never funny, and completely boring. Both Carney and Arthur are, amazingly, able to keep straight faces throughout this nonsense, but Korman is just embarrassing himself. The Star Wars cast themselves all look like they’d rather be elsewhere, especially Ford, who keeps the same “I gave up a bigger role in Apocalypse Now for this?” face throughout. The use of stock footage here is even more annoying than the flashbacks seen in the final episode of Deep Space Nine.

So how did a beloved movie spawn this painful bit of television? Well, once Star Wars became a huge hit, Charles Lippincott, the man who cemented Lucas’s deals with both Kenner and Marvel, was looking for other ways to keep the Star Wars momentum going. One of these was a Star Wars-themed episode of the CBS variety show Donny & Marie, with the hosts playing Luke and Leia as well as appearances by the droids and the legendary Redd Foxx as Obi-Wan Kenobi. The ratings success of this installment prompted the network to ask about doing a variety show entirely about Star Wars. Lucas did take some initial interest in the idea, and set up a Lucasfilm subsidiary he called Black Falcon to work with Lippincott to develop the special. Shortly after, however, Lucas cut off ties with Lippincott because he was displeased with how Lippincott supposedly lost Lucasfilm money in the Marvel deal by offering the first issues of the Star Wars comic for free. Lucas himself then lost interest in the special because pre-production on The Empire Strikes Back was well underway. As a result, the only ones left to deal with this bizarre assignment were people who had no idea what they were supposed to do because the one person in charge was focusing his attention elsewhere.

Hamill, Ford, and Fisher all reluctantly went along with this because of their contracts. And also, Fisher insisted that she be allowed to sing.

Put this all together and it’s no wonder that even George Lucas (who’s defended the prequels like there’s no tomorrow) hates this special. As SF Debris pointed out in his documentary The Shadow’s Journey, the infamy the special generated was one factor that ended up influencing Lucas into becoming more of a businessman during the making of Empire and Return of the Jedi, rather than the filmmaker he was when he made the original film.

In this day and age, we shouldn’t be surprised that there are people willing to fork out the cash to see just how bad this special is. But if you want to see a variety show about Star Wars that’s actually good, check out the aforementioned Donny & Marie episode, or even the 1980 installment of The Muppet Show which had appearances by Hamill, Mayhew, and the droids. Those two shows are actually enjoyable.